In-Person Marketing Gets Connected: Part 1

The morning sunlight bounced off the brown bricks of the old Williamsburg sawdust factory. This was an unusual location and venue for a tech conference.

Now known as National Sawdust, the factory was converted into a cutting-edge music and event venue by boutique Brooklyn architecture/design firm Bureau V. Outside: nothing to see, except an ordinary Williamsburg post-industrial street. Through the door: a tight lobby space; in the front, Rider, an American bistro with a Michelin Bib Gourmand, a destination in itself.

Finally inside, a soaring space, resonant as the inside of a guitar body, thanks to Arup Acoustics. The program for the day: a rapid-fire series of ten minute talks from the stage (and some longer firesides) on every aspect of events marketing — interspersed with performances by local artists: classical music, jazz, dance, EDM.

On a modest scale, the day-long conference sketched the tech event of the future. Entertainment seamlessly combined with information, and an imaginative choice of speakers. For example, leading theater designer (“Hamilton”) David Korins on how building a great experience is at the core of an event:


Ben Hindman with David Korin’s at Splash’s Mastermind

This event was Mastermind 2017, an immersive all-day workshop created by New York-based in-person marketing specialist Splash. And for all the enjoyable surface gloss, and the persuasive emphasis on audience experience, I was aware of the hard work going on behind the scenes to capture, analyze, and activate audience data.

Understanding the events challenge

In-person marketing is a broader category than just events, of course. It encompasses one-on-one meetings, dinners, receptions, business-oriented leisure activities (yes, golf) and anything involving face-time. But of course events are the big fish in the ocean: scalable ways for B2C and B2B brands to shake hands with hundreds — even thousands — of prospects and customers under the same roof.

And the assumption has always been that the value of in-person marketing — the value of events — depends on that personal touch. That’s true, of course: but like never before, the value of in-person marketing can now be driven by the data it can generate.

I met Ben Hindman, co-founder and CEO of Splash, a number of times over the summer: in Splash’s midtown office, at a cafe space Splash had occupied across the road from the Marketo conference in San Francisco, at Mastermind of course. He’s a livewire evangelist, not just for events, but for how they can — and should — be transformed by data. 

“It’s happening now and it’s happening fast. You’re correct that we still see a lot of event marketers that have limited data and technology experience, but we are seeing their CMOs, VPs of marketing, and sales counterparts pushing them to prove the value of their programs so their organizations can continue to invest, increase investments, and scale their events programs.” 

Events marketers were in their “own unconnected world”

To understand the opportunities and challenges facing event organizers in this data-driven environment, I spoke with Laura Ramos, principal analyst serving B2B marketers at Forrester, and Melissa Blazejewski, former event marketer at NewsCred, and now leader of her own events marketing company, BlazeEvents.

Ramos emphasized that her commentary applied only to the B2B space, where events are a very important line item, although brands have a “weird love-hate relationship” with them. Unlike Hindman, Ramos finds a lot of companies stuck in the mud when it comes to events “They’re stuck in a pattern of doing events, but they haven’t taken advantage of the digitizing of events. I have to say that adoption is pretty slow; it’s not overwhelming.”

From Ramos’ perspective, demand gen is not putting sufficient pressure on events teams to capture event data and turn it into insights on attendees. It’s too easy to see events as just “points in time, rather than as one among many marketing channels. I asked whether one problem was a lack of clarity about who owns B2B events. “I would agree,” said Ramos. “If it’s a B2B company putting on its conference, there’s always an element of selling tickets; but events should be less about making money and more about digital engagement.”

The focus tends to be on money on the venue, the speakers, and logistics, not: “How do we use this as an opportunity to really learn about customers?” This makes no sense, Ramos argues. Marketing executives don’t hesitate to spend money monitoring the behavior of website visitors. But attending a conference for two or three days is a much bigger commitment: ““It’s a much stronger buying signal than just browsing someone’s website.”

Blazejewski, who partnered with Splash on a number of events in her NewsCred days, needs no persuading that the in-person marketing space is now all about the data. “I’ve been in the events space for seven years,” she told me, “and it’s honestly my passion.” She has seen a recent transformation – in the last two or three years, she thought – when it comes to advances in metrics, analytics, and tracking ROI.

In the past, she said, there was some relevant pieces of technology – “CRM stacks have been around for a while” – but events marketers hadn’t thought about applying technology to their own data sets. “They were in their own little unconnected world.”

Before joining NewsCred, Blazejewski worked with a free version of Splash. At NewsCred, she starting working with the enterprise version, especially for landing pages. “Splash is the vendor that does that by far the best; and I’ve vetted a lot of vendors.” NewsCred tagged event registrants in Marketo and Salesforce. An event would have a unique name (e.g. NewsCred’s flagship conference ThinkContent). Blazejewski would create an email campaign for the event in Marketo (“It can be done in Splash, but we already had the templates in Marketo”); the unique event tag would be given to Splash, and Splash would send registration information to Salesforce; Salesforce, in turn, “talks to Marketo.”

When a prospect registers for an event, they are given a status, and Splash pulls data on them from Salesforce. On check-in, status is updated for shows and no-shows. Data on outcomes (follow-ups, meetings, conversions) makes an informed calculation of event ROI possible. 

What makes an event worth it?

Blazejewski took me through it. “When we started at NewsCred, we were very new to the space. We started with nothing: We were building our marketing database and thinking about scoring leads.” The questions were basic:

Marketing ROI on an event might be calculated by dividing the cost by the value of the opportunities generated. A sales metric might go beyond opportunities to closed deals. There’s a distinction too, she explained, between first-touch revenue directly attributable to event attendance, and “influence revenue,” based on prospects being accelerated through the funnel by event attendance. And then there’s value beyond conversions: “Brand awareness, the way people feel about your brand. There’s more value besides just how much revenue we can drive, but that’s hard to pinpoint.”

What’s easy to see, however, is just how much any calculations of this kind rely – if they’re to be compelling and accurate – on aggregating data about attendees, before, during, and after the big occasion. Where they come from, where they go, who they meet, what engages them, and what they subsequently do about it?

That means, of course, that data skills are becoming more significant in the events space. “I think it’s important now,” Blazejewski said. “Every interview: Do you have experience analyzing data? That’s going to be a normal question.”

In many ways, the granular tracking of attendee data gets a lot easier if an event is digital through-and-through: a webinar, for example. Blazejewski and Ramos were split on the value of digital events.  “On-demand has gotten more popular,” Ramos noted, especially when you’re lucky to get a third of registrants for a digital event to attend live. One advantage of a digital event is that it’s not just a thing which happens at a point in time. It’s a marketing asset which can be used in a variety of different ways. She cited ON24 as a brand which is “moving ahead” on digital events, not just because of its technology, but because of “thought leadership.”

For Blazejewski, the actual value of digital events is “questionable from a lead gen standpoint. I will always pick an in-person event over a webinar.”

Does the digitization of in-person marketing really point to an expunging of the in-person element? If events are taking on digital trappings, maybe events should just be digital, period. I knew ON24 would have a perspective on this.